49ers-Saints—Two Top Teams Trading Blows—Should Not Be About the Officiating

It was arguably the best game of the 2019 season so far, yet many will walk away only thinking about the officiating blunders.
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George Kittle

49ers TE George Kittle had six receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown against the Saints.

Try as some of us might to make this about referees, either by actually making it about the referees or positing yourself in a public way so as to make it seem like you’re not making it about the referees even though by doing so you’re definitely making it about the referees, Sunday’s beautiful game between the Saints and 49ers was not about the referees.

We are in the midst of an officiating crisis brought on by a ridiculously conceived rule change that, like everything else in politics or business, was promised to solve everyone’s problems. In reality, that change has created dozens of new problems to solve. 

Every Sunday officials have to decide what is egregious enough to warrant an overturn. That often leaves one crew ignoring broad-daylight muggings in one game and another crew calling ridiculous touch fouls like the one called in East Rutherford today that caused Dolphins head coach Brian Flores to go searching frantically for anyone or thing wearing stripes on the field post-game for a private conversation.

The 49ers’ 48-46 win over the Saints should be appreciated for what it was: The game of 2019 so far. The game that collectively captivates us for four quarters in that special space where we temporarily forget about defense but that is not so egregious that we complain about the disappearance of defense altogether. The game that features two offenses loaded with stars trading blows, helping us imagine the outer reaches of offense in a given season.

Four total punts. Six Drew Brees touchdowns and four from Jimmy Garoppolo. Defense-breaking reverses to future star Deebo Samuel. A George Kittle catch reminiscent of a great Marshawn Lynch Beast Mode run. Some of the most aesthetically pleasing pitching and catching between quarterback and wide receiver (Brees and Michael Thomas) that we’ve seen all year.

And yet it’s hard to escape the inevitable default setting that this was somehow the fault—or worse—drummed-up conspiracy of a few poor schlubs who dread what is becoming the least attractive assignment in football officiating. Referees aren’t out to get anyone—they’re under-experienced and overtaxed. They’re dealing with a game that has never been faster or more schematically devious and trying to keep up, while they’re bosses only seem to approve the use of technology to make their job more difficult.

The gripe du jour stemmed from a late fake punt pass in which the Saints’ wide receiver/gunner was being smothered by a 49ers defender downfield. There is no pass interference on punt plays and no flexibility in the NFL’s biblical rulebook for it to be interpreted as such. Thus, the familiar cycle of events.

Angry coach. Tired officials. Positing. Politicking. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Nothing is ever going to change the result of the 2018 NFC Championship game. In fact, I’ve had a referee tell me that reviewable pass interference as currently constructed may not have even reversed the missed pass interference on Nickell Robey-Coleman that caused all of this griping in the first place. As strange as it sounds, we may be living in the golden age of human error impacting officiating, all because we demanded technology to solve a problem in a totally ridiculous way.

All the while we’re missing good games. For Saints fans, missing the twilight of a brilliant quarterback surrounded with explosive weapons. Moments like these don’t come along very often and for some really bad franchises, haven’t come around since the formation of the modern NFL. It would be a shame to miss it. 

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